Why a quarter-life crisis isn’t all bad

In my just-post uni early 20s, I saw many friends, and myself included, struggle to enter the ‘real world.’ We were a fresh-faced 22 and yet, for some reason, we were all in the midst of something akin to a mid-life crisis. In many ways, we showed signs of depression, anxiety, and even touches of mania, but never enough of anything to merit a diagnosis. Instead, we deemed it angst, and wore it as a badge of honour. Our doubt only showing in that fragility behind our eyes, which looked eerily similar to a child who has lost their mother at the supermarket.

In pop-psychology, a quarter-life crisis is defined as a period of anxiety over the direction and potential of one’s life. Insecurity, doubts and disappointments begin to seep into our concept of ourselves, and we localise that pain in an array of areas, ranging from our career to our relationships or financial situation. The term is (unsurprisingly) adapted from the infamous notion of a mid-life crisis. But (surprisingly), that term was coined by a psychoanalyst called Elliott Jaques in 1957.

Jaques claimed that it is common for people in their early 40s to experience a ‘depressive episode’ that can last years. Symptoms tended to include religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, hypochondriac concern over one’s health, and compulsive attempts to remain young, which usually take the form of impulsivity (e.g. suddenly quitting one’s job) or excessive substance abuse. Jaques argued that, at its core, a mid-life crisis is a reaction to the discomfort provoked by the knowledge that one’s life is halfway over. But, within that, comes the realisation that death isn’t something that just happens to other people; they are but mere mortals too.

However, if we take psychoanalysis as our point of departure, I think we can find something deeper at work. While one’s life may feel halfway over at 40, it is only beginning at 20. Why would we then struggle with such similar existential angst? In my eyes, there is one core similarity: the societal expectations placed on us begin to change.

For example, in our early 20s, we are expected to find a job and become adults. The world stops perceiving us in terms of our future potential and instead focuses on what we can offer in the here and now. At 40, we experience a similar – but intensified – version of that. In that instance, it becomes even less about the present, and more about what one has achieved in the past. In both cases we need to adapt our ego (aka our concept of ourselves) to certain limitations. However, neither is the first time we have had to undergo such a transition.

Specifically, in On Narcissism (1914), Freud argued that people are born without a sense of themselves as individuals (an ego). We have no idea where our mother starts or we end, and we experience it all as undivided wholeness. As we move away from that state of being, we will retroactively invest it with feelings like fulfilment, joy, and all things one thinks of when they think about ‘ego-less’ living.

Instead, the ego develops during infancy as the outside world (aka parental control and expectations) intrude on this ‘primary narcissism’, as he put it. As we learn more and more about the nature of our social environment, that wholeness is fragmented and chipped away. In other words, we adapt to certain limitations of being. But instead of losing any sense of wholeness, we merge it with those limitations to construct an ‘ideal ego’. This is an image of a perfect self towards which the ego can aspire. In other words, we set our sights on a version of who we want to become, believing that if we reach it, we will again feel whole and complete.

Thus, in my eyes, a quarter- or mid-life crisis occurs when we need to undergo another period of building our ideal ego. New limitations are seemingly imposed and from that we must once again visit this original transition. If we struggle with the process, it could perhaps reveal to us how we struggled during those beginning years, when the foundations of who we are was forming. For example, what I saw many of my friends do (but mostly myself) is try to double-down on an adolescent ideal ego. It was as though we felt as though we had finally achieved that perfect self. The idea that we would need to let go of it (e.g the notion that my job would suddenly mean more than what parties I went to) was terrifying. I had to, once again, accept the loss of wholeness.

So, I suppose, all of this to say, if you are struggling with a period of transition – be it in your 20s, 30s, 40s or 80s – lean into the idea that the fear of change you are feeling could be rooted in that original loss. Try to retain a curious position towards your experience and remember: if you managed to get through that first one, you can survive this change too.

Written by Molly Fitz